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Drone Laws Explained


Understanding Australia's Drone Laws

There are many regulations on flying drones (UAVs) in Australia. Let us break it down.

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Drone Laws Explained


Understanding Australia's Drone Laws

There are many regulations on flying drones (UAVs) in Australia. Let us break it down.

Drone activity in Australia is regulated by CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) under CASR Part 101.
 

To understand laws for flying drones in Australia, there are 3 fundamental categories of drone operators:

 

Recreational Pilots

You have bought a drone such as a Phantom 4 or a Mavic Pro and you are looking to get in on some of those amazing photos and videos getting around Facebook, Youtube and Instagram.

You fly for fun and enjoyment, but not for payment.

 

Commercial Pilots (Uncertified)

It is possible to fly for money in Australia with a drone that weighs under 2kg (e.g.  a DJI Phantom or Mavic). This requires registering with CASA but requires no specific training or application costs.

These operations are restricted to CASA’s Standard Operating Conditions (SOCs) and this does reduce what kind of commercial operations can be performed. It is also more difficult to attain public liability insurance without a licence or certificate.

 

Commercial Pilots (Certified)

To operate commercially with heavier drones (>2kg) or to operate in conditions such as night time or flying in closer proximity to persons, a pilot must hold a Remote Pilots Licence (RePL). This allows the pilot to be employed by a business holding an RPA Operators Certificate (ReOC) or to apply for their own ReOC and operate as an individual or sole trader.

 


Standard Operating Conditions

These conditions cover all recreational drone activities and commercial activities (for uncertified pilots).

 

Can’t fly within 30m of people or property

It is not permitted to fly your drone above any point which is within 30m of a person.

The only exception would be a person working as a spotter or otherwise required for the operation. Getting permission from the person does not change this law. Only a certified pilot can fly within 30m of a person with permission. Even then, they can only fly up to 15m away.

CASA regard this measurement to be horizontal – ie. Measured along the ground from the point directly below the aircraft (regardless of height). Flying within 30m is regarded as hazardous operation.

CASA drone 30 metre rule

“With regards to the 30m rule, whilst the regulation does not specifically define a prescribed distance to a building, boat, car etc., all those are associated with property owned by someone. All these objects are also associated with people in them, on them around them, so 101.055 Hazardous Operation prohibited states:
A person must not operate an unmanned aircraft in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, person, or property.
When we want to apply a safe distance so that a hazard is not created, one would expect a minimum distance of 30m to be applied, due to the fact that people are associated in and around those types of objects and therefore you must maintain a minimum distance of 30m from a person.”
- CASA
 

Can’t fly over populous areas

This means you can’t fly over a park, beach or any area which has multiple people present. This is probably one of the most broken rules by recreational drone pilots. In short, if there are people around the drone shouldn’t be flown where it could pass above them or in any way impact them if things were to go wrong. Drones can and do drop out of the sky due to things like propeller or battery failures.

This rule tends to overlap the 30m rule explained above.

 

Can’t fly at night or in poor visibility

There are very few pilots who are allowed to fly at night. This is a non-negotiable rule. It also applies to foggy conditions. If you can’t see your drone easily, it’s probably not legal to be flying. CASA regard night as any time after “last light” – usually few minutes after sunset and a few minutes before sunrise.

 

Can’t fly within 3nm (5.5km) of airports

It’s important to consider a few things here. It’s probably obvious that you won’t be able to fly around international airports where there are major airlines operating on a constant basis. But, have you also considered there might be smaller airstrips or helipads (think hospitals) close to your town or suburb? If you fly between 1km and 5.5km of an untowered helipad you can’t exceed 45m in height. Some airstrips only operate at certain times and a quick phone call to the airport can tell you if there are aircraft landing or taking off when you want to fly. Never assume there won’t be.

  • Controlled (towered) airports. Can’t fly in departure/approach paths at all. Can’t exceed 45m in height in other areas. Can’t fly within airport boundaries.
  • Uncontrolled airports. Can't fly in any way which causes danger to other aircraft. You should call the airport to find out if it is safe to fly in the area.
  • Towered/controlled helipads. Can’t fly within 5.5km at all.
  • Uncontrolled helipads. Can’t exceed 45m in height (above helipad height) within 5.5km. Can’t fly at all within 500m of the helipad.

Note that flying in a way which endangers another aircraft is a criminal offense and could result in a two-year prison term (not just a fine).

 

Restricted Areas

There are some areas which are no-fly zones even if there aren’t airports or helipads present. A good example is Sydney Harbour. The sheer volume of seaplanes, helicopters and other aircraft moving around means the entire airspace is restricted. No, you can’t fly up to the Harbour Bridge or cruise over the Opera House. Flying in restricted areas requires approval from the controlling body. This is quite difficult to obtain for recreational pilots and would involve conditions that make it less than worthwhile.

Other restricted areas include military bases or training areas. These aren’t restricted 24x7 but can be activated at any time. If you wish to fly in these areas you need to understand how NOTAMs are issued and how to read them. For most people, it’s just best to avoid these areas. CASA’s new Can I Fly There? app is a good place to start for understanding which areas are restricted. If you really wish to fly in a temporary restricted area, review NAIPS and Airservices Australia for how to receive and read NOTAMs.

Although CASA don’t specify other specific areas, privacy laws and otherwise prohibit flying drones over some areas such as dams, ports and national parks. If you wish to fly over government property, it is best to check with the Federal or State authority website relating to that property. National Parks are mostly operated by state governments.

 

Must Maintain Visual Line of Sight (VLOS)

You must be able to see your drone, see which direction it is pointing and be able to see obstacles it may encounter. You can’t, for example, fly 2km away with only the assistance of the video feed and telemetry on your phone or tablet. You won’t be able to see the drone past about 500m away (that’s being generous).

 

Can’t exceed 120m of height in Australian airspace

This height is as measured from the ground directly below the drone at all times. This does not mean the height read-out on the phone or tablet (as this is relative only to the take off point). You can’t, say, take off from the top of a cliff, ascend to 120m from the take off point and fly out from the cliff. If the cliff was 60m above the area below, this would put you 180m above ground level (AGL) and in the range of other aircraft. Also note that this rule does not allow you still can’t fly above 45m within 5.5km of helipads (see above).

 

Can’t fly in the area of a public safety operation

Drone pilots have been fined for flying over events such as bushfires as this puts emergency personnel at risk. Many emergency situations will have aircraft landing or operating at low altitude and these aircraft can be put at serious risk by drones flying in the area. Avoid these situations unless you have express permission from the person in charge of the operation.

 

Can Only Fly One Drone at a Time

Once your drone takes-off, you must remain in control of only that drone until you land it. You aren’t permitted to pick up another controller and operate another drone at the same time.

 

Private Property

Although CASA don’t regulate flying over private property, there are some privacy laws which may prohibit flying over private land without permission from the landowner. Our recommendation is that you avoid flying over any private property without permission.

 


Landholders

A person flying on their own land (e.g. a farm) has some extra permissions beyond the usual standard operating conditions.

A landholder may fly a larger RPA (up to 25kg) over his/her own property, ensuring he or she meets the other standard conditions.

If the landholder employs another person, that person must be certified and follow all relevant rules. He or she is not excepted like the landholder.

 


Commercial Operations (Uncertified)

To operate drones commercially without a licence and operating certificate, you must comply with the following conditions:

  • Fly a drone with a weight less than 2kg (for example a Phantom 4 weighs 1.3kg, a Mavic Pro weighs 0.8kg).
  • Comply with all Standard Operating Conditions
  • Hold an ARN (Aviation Reference Number)
  • Register with CASA for Commercial Operations (Under 2kg)

 


Commercial Operations (RePL & ReOC Certified)

 

There are two parts to conducting certified commercial operations:

  1. Pilots must hold a Remote Pilot’s Licence (RePL).
  2. The Operator (business or individual) must hold a RPA Operator’s Certificate (ReOC).

A pilot can only conduct commercial operations under a ReOC (either held by themselves or by their employer). Pilots can operate as contractors under the ReOC of another business.

A RePL allows the pilot to fly heavier RPAs (up to 7kg normally, or up to 25kg with special training).

A ReOC enables a business to conduct commercial operations with heavier RPAs (>2kg)

ReOC holders were given significant additional privileges under the CASR Part 101 amendment, including:

  • permission to operate closer than 30 metres, but no less than 15 metres, from a person
  • night time flying (with night approval)
  • the ability to get approval to the regulations e.g. beyond-visual-line-of-sight where CASA accepts that the safety case for the operation maintains the current level of aviation safety
  • the ability to apply for a range of different additional approvals. However, be aware there are also state licensing requirements for various flight activities (eg, applying agricultural chemicals)